Misawa couple climbed to safety during tsunami
Stars and Stripes December 30, 2004
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The Shelbys waited a year for a honeymoon they now wish they could forget.
Airman 1st Class Chad Shelby and his wife, Megan, are among the survivors of the worst tsunami in recorded history.
They returned to Misawa on Tuesday night, tan and dazed, with numerous scrapes and bruises and a digital camera that recorded both the happiest of memories and the worst imaginable.
On Wednesday, after checking into the hospital and setting up an appointment to speak with a counselor at Life Skills, the Shelbys shared their story with Stars and Stripes.
Married a year, Chad, 20, an entry controller with Misawa’s 35th Security Forces Squadron, and Megan, 21, celebrated their first anniversary by taking the honeymoon they never had in Thailand over the holiday.
After a visit to Chang Mai in the north, they were to spend several days in Thailand’s famed southern paradise of Phuket. Sunday morning, the day after Christmas, the plan was to go scuba diving. The Shelbys were checking out gear and watching an instructional video at a scuba dive shop and bar on Patong Beach when all hell broke loose.
The first wave, which the couple estimates came ashore sometime after 9:30 a.m. local time, washed far up on the beach, dumping fish and crabs on the sand. The scuba instructor remarked he had “never seen anything like this,” Chad said.
About two minutes later, another wave crashed into the scuba shack, trapping Megan and two others in a storage room.
“The water filled up to armpit level real quick,” Megan said. “It just came in like somebody took a swimming pool, turned it upside down and dumped it on you. We didn’t even know this was a tidal wave. We just didn’t know.”
Chad, who was outside the storage room when the wave hit, was able to climb up on the clay-shingled roof and pry the door open from above, freeing Megan and the others. Fearing more waves, the pair struggled to get up on another roof, helping, among others, a 3-year-old Japanese boy separated from his parents and a trembling, elderly Frenchman to higher ground. That’s when they saw the third wave coming, a towering wall of water about 10 to 15 feet high, Chad estimated.
“I thought ‘we have to get higher,’” Megan said. They jumped onto the top of another one-story building farther away from the beach with a few other people. The giant wave crested palm trees on the beach and the Shelbys watched with horror as the top of the wave washed over the scuba shack, ripping it apart.
“We just jumped with all we could to the next roof,” Megan said.
“That one broke as we jumped onto it,” Chad said. “We climbed up onto the next roof and waited.”
And prayed. That was the last standing building in their reach. The water rose to just below roof level.
“If another wave would have come, we would not have survived,” Megan said, estimating that they were about 50 to 60 feet from the beach at that point.
“Everything on the beach was gone,” Megan said. “Most of the concrete buildings still stood, but the windows were gone. Every piece of furniture was gone. It was just like a gutted, empty house. There were TVs, computers, shoes, food strewn all along the beach. The water just washed everything away.”
The Shelbys didn’t see anyone die but they won’t forget the sounds.
“People screaming for their children, for loved ones. The biggest thing you heard was the ocean. Everyone was looking for the next wave to come crashing,” Megan said.
Chad and Megan waited in the baking sun for three hours with an Australian and a few other tourists on the roof. The water level in the streets below had receded to about 5 to 6 inches. Some locals helped them down and back to their hotel room. They had scratches, bruises and gashes from falling.
Their hotel on Patong Beach weathered the waves, and because they still had their passports and airline tickets, the Shelbys were on one of the first flights out of Phuket on Monday, the same day they were scheduled to leave.
Four days later, the near-death experience seems like a dream. The young couple simply can’t believe they survived.
“I actually thought we were going to die,” Megan said.
Megan credits her husband for not panicking when the second wave blew into the scuba shack.
“I was just thinking of how to get higher, just survival I guess,” Chad said.“If either one of us had panicked, we would have just died.”
A beach lover, Megan said it will be a long time before she sets foot near an ocean again.
“Nobody had any warning,” she said. “I just feel so sorry for the people who died, who didn’t make it.”
“We’re so lucky,” Chad said.